They don’t make em like this anymore, and that goes for both the protagonists of Joe Begos’s VFW and the film itself. Coated in 16mm grain, dripping with gorgeous, driving 80’s style synth music and packed wall to wall with excessively gory, blood soaked extreme violence, this film feels like the old school right to the bone. Set in a particularly nasty urban hell where the opioid crisis has reached a breaking point, a group of tough, battle hardened Nam and Korea veterans fight til the death to protect their local VFW hall and drinking spot from a gang of evil marauding drug psychos out to get their stolen product back. It’s a barebones siege thriller infused with schlock from one angle but there’s a deeper level, care and attention paid to each of these characters, wonderful dialogue that has the scent of improvisation and super game performances from these familiar faces of the VHS golden age of genre filmmaking. Stephen Lang (Tombstone, The Hard Way, Manhunter) heads up the pack as ringleader and Fred is joined by beloved familiar faces including blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson (From Dusk Till Dawn, MASH, Vigilante), Martin Kove (The Karate Kid, Rambo II, Death Race 2000), George Wendt (Fletch, House, Space Truckers), William Sadler (Die Hard 2, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Shawshank Redemption) and David Patrick Kelly (Twin Peaks, 48 Hrs, The Crow). These guys are totems of a bygone era in terms of themselves and the characters they get to play. They all got their start in the industry back around the 70’s and 80’ when the age of VHS was just getting underway, and as such represent a time when you’d walk into a video store and see the horror/action sections adorned with countless titles just like this one. In the film itself they play these veterans with a strong sense of brotherhood, camaraderie and community, the kind I imagine you could only get from serving together or simply knowing what it’s like to be in the shit. The film shows a reverence for these old dudes as they fiercely rage against the dying of the light and lament a large portion of the younger generation lost to drugs. It’s also just a kickass fucking horror fest with retro sensibilities, a Wild Bunch meets John Carpenter with a dash of Panos Cosmatos kinda vibe. My favourite film so far this year and highly recommended, provided this aesthetic is your thing.
It’s time for some schlocky 80’s biker trash. Savage Dawn is a cheap, sleazy, exceedingly noisy, obnoxious piece of dustbowl highway exploitation and I love every minute of it. Lance Henriksen is stoic ex green beret Stryker who drifts past a small town to visit his old army buddy (George Kennedy). Also blowing through the area is a pack of evil, vicious bikers led by sadistic Pigiron (William Forsythe, living up to that name and then some). Stryker just wants to chill out and have beers with his ol’ bud but Pigiron & Co. have other plans and the film is basically a loose, untethered series of ultra-violent run-ins with the gang, while other weirdo backwoods locals run in and out of the scenes all silly billy. Henriksen is the only actor here to play it remotely seriously, keeping that stone faced glare stolidly in place and dishing out beatdowns left and right. Forsythe is downright maniacal here, doing one of the best versions of his ‘psycho snarling hick shtick’ and chewing scenery like an evil tornado of redneck rambunctiousness. This was the first time these two tussled in a biker picture and would reunite again for Stone Cold in the 90’s, but that’s another story. The late Richard Lynch shows up as a feeble, horn-dog local preacher who gets in the way and the great Karen Black has a memorable turn as the loopy local slut. This ain’t nothing but bottom of the barrel street grease, there’s no way around it. But the actors sell it and there’s enough of them letting off steam to make this enjoyable, albeit fairly WTF in places. Gotta keep in mind that gnarly little nuggets like this were commonplace back then and sometimes I miss em.
Stuart Gordon’s ReAnimator is a healthy dose of schlocktastic fun, taking a page out of the silly splatter book of Sam Raimi, and although not quite as fun as some of the stuff it draws inspiration from, it does the trick. I know this film has a massive cult fanbase and while I can’t say that I loved it quite as much as some no doubt do, I always have some love for gory practical effects, and the ones on display here are pretty impressive. Jeffrey Combs is funny (if not exactly the definition of subtle throughout his whole career) as Dr. Herbert West, a loony fuckin quack who has stumbled upon an ectoplasmic looking serum that brings dead corpses back to life, albeit with a side of extreme retardation. Things go riotously awry when a jealous rival (David Gale) literally loses his head and steals it, prompting a gruesome comedy of errors in which heads, limbs, blood and entrails are hurled about the screen in a feverish celebration of all things gory and grisly. You can’t exactly call them zombies, I mean I suppose they are but they’re given a modicum more sentience than your average shambling Romero flesh-eater, but the actors get to have fun with their zany side, as the formula sort of plays havoc with their cognitive functions, a hilarious touch. There’s a sexually icky part that was even a bit in bad taste for my lax sensibilities (poor Barbara Crampton is a trooper and better have gotten paid hefty fucking overtime), but I suppose that trash is sort of the name of the game here. The 80’s was a very formative decade for the horror genre, and its fascinating to see how not only was this inspired by earlier stuff like Raimi, but would itself go on to rouse other filmmakers and give them ideas, as Hollywood progresses in symbiosis. A fun, freaky time.
It’s ironic that Tom Sizemore starred in a B flick called Bottom Feeder, because he’s been called worse by many in Hollywood. Jokes aside I love the guy, he’s up there with my favourite actors and I’ve had to reconcile his behaviour next to my admiration for years. It’s also no secret that he’s made some piss poor cash grab films, like this one, which lives up to it’s name. Sizemore is clearly emerging from the hazy doldrums of rehab here (the timelines check out), and as such is more subdued than his trademark zany, jumping bean persona. That and he probably had zero interest in putting an effort into material this low brow and schlocky. He plays the head of a maintenance crew here who are dispatched into the catacombs of a city sewer system. Coincidentally, it’s also the home of a maniac scientist who shoots himself up with a weird genetic serum, feeds on a live rat and turns into a giant gooey rat/hooman hybrid that immediately starts hunting people down there. Sizemore’s team has all kinds of theories that reach conspiracy level but at it’s core this is just a standard made for SyFy channel mess, and if it weren’t for his name above the billing, it wouldn’t have even blipped on anyone’s radar, especially mine. The monster looks like a weird ramshackle cross between the thing in Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift and the gross giant rat that Tom Savini becomes in From Dusk Till Dawn, except way less cool than both of those beasties. This is a bottom feeder flick, derivative of basically everything in other better horror flicks and bereft of any of its own originality. Hard pass.
There’s always those B Movies that seemed to be sewn together out of bits of other scripts and produced solely so SyFy or Space has something, anything to fill up their 3am Saturday time slot. It’s like production team grabbed discarded narratives from all kinds of genre flicks, shoved them in a magic bullet, but purée and served up whatever the result is to the distributor. Now, this can often be a terrible idea resulting in boring mish-mash horror flicks that make little sense, or they can oddly kind of work in their own absurd way. Necessary Evil… kind of works, kind of doesn’t, there’s definitely something splattered on the canvas with it’s narrative, what it is though, I’m not even sure the filmmakers had an idea. It’s part Lovecraftian horror, part psychological something, part social satire and all schlock, but these themes bleed into each other until even the most attentive viewer will have not much of a clue what they’re watching. Best I can describe it: a super sinister doctor named Fibrian (Lance Henriksen) runs a shadowy psychiatric ward. There’s all kinds of rumours about illegal testing, dodgy pharmaceuticals, mass mind control and occult ties, none of which is ever made clear or disproved. However, when you have Lance playing your asylum director, you can almost be sure the place is up to something it shouldn’t be, he just has that cavalier maliciousness that he always switches on for these types of parts. A police detective and a reporter are onto him, and do theor best to infiltrate the facility, but his powers have already spread to the city outside, causing people to act strange and… well, a bunch of other weird shit. Danny Trejo has an amusingly hostile extended cameo as some vague operative working for Fibrian, and yada yada. It earns points for sheer WTF-ness though, it’s like every day on set they picked one crew member to add the craziest thing they could think of to the script and just ran with that (which would be a cool free association method of improvisational filmmaking, now that I think about it. They outdo themselves in a hilarious, out of left field cliffhanger ending that gets pretty cosmic and out there, adding a straight up supernatural element that cements the demented vibe they’ve strived for with the whole thing. A true oddball.
Picture a bleached out, acid washed dime-store version of Blade Runner on a shoestring, bargain budget and you’ll have some notion of Sci Fighters, a silly futuristic flick starring lovable wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and B Movie stock villain Billy Drago. By most standards it’s a miserable little exercise in schlock, but if that’s your thing to begin with, it’s a pearl. So it’s set in 2009, and the film was made in 96’, which going by a combination of the math and the severely bleak atmosphere, the filmmakers didn’t even stretch their timeline barely past twenty years from their date, showing either amusing carelessness in writing or even more amusing cynicism for where we’re headed, and how fast. The setting is Boston, and it’s a goddamn slum, with perpetually overcast skies, garbage heaps everywhere and a general sense that people have given up. Piper is Grayson, a hard boiled detective on the trail of a somewhat unusual killer. Far above earth in a filthy off-world prison on the moon, criminal Dunn (Drago) has encountered some weird alien parasite which hijacks his gaunt frame and torpedos back stateside to start a murder spree. Drago vs Piper in a sad-sack, disease ridden Boston is pretty much the suitable logline, and it’s not half bad. Piper makes a more grounded leading man than the film deserves, while Drago is straight up certifiable (nothing new) especially when the extraterrestrial, who has a garbled and endearing speech impediment, is controlling him. Effort is put into the atmosphere to some degree, but I feel like the success in achieving mood was probably also by accident of just leaving shit lying around set. A true peculiarity, worth it only for fans of the two actors and schlock-hounds alike.
Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift is curiously one of my favourite adaptations of his work. I say curiously because it’s not a very tasteful film, let alone even a good one. It’s simple schlock and awe, goo and slime for 90 minutes straight, every human character either an unsettling nutcase or cardboard stock archetype. There’s just something so Midnite Movie-esque about it though, a sense of fun to its gigantic, hollowed out mess of a textile mill in which some kind of vile denizen stalks a night crew that pretty much deserves everything they get. People wander about, squabble and are picked off in ways that get steadily more gruesome until the final reveal of the monster in some overblown puss-palooza of a finale. What more do you need in your bottom feeder helping of horror? Steven Macht is the sleazebag who runs the mill at his tyrannical whim, while David Andrews is the closest thing you’ll find to a stoic protagonist. Andrew ‘Wishmaster’ Divoff shows up as a stock character, but it’s Brad Dourif who chews scenery and ends up the only memorable person as the world’s most simultaneously intense and incompetent exterminator, a bug eyed little weirdo who freaks people out with extended monologues about Viet Nam when he should be perusing corridors to find whatever’s lurking there. The monster itself, if I remember correctly, is one big pile of grossly misshappen, poopy prosthetic puppetry, as is often the case in early 90’s King fare. Would you want it any other way? Simple, efficient and impressively gory is what you’ll find on this shift.